Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Author-Agent Relationship

I’m just back from a trip to New York City, and one of the things I did while there was to meet with my great agent, Ellen Geiger of Francis Goldin Literary Agency. That meeting started me thinking about the whole author-agent relationship.

Ellen and I have become friends, as well as business colleagues, during the years she’s been representing me, so our long conversations often touched on the personal. But I was struck by the business part of our talks. I don’t think it was what most authors who are looking for an agent would have expected. We didn’t talk specific contracts (with the exception of an unusual one that’s currently under negotiation). Those discussions are taken care of by phone and email at the time the contract’s being negotiated. What we talked about most of all was what direction my writing career should take in the future. Ellen knows how far we can go in one area before hitting its ceiling, and she encourages me to consider writing other books in other areas, so I won’t be one of the writers having to reinvent myself because my current market has dried up under me.

This kind of long-range career planning is the kind of thing a good agent does with her/his client when they have the chance. After all, I have a contract with Ellen to essentially be my guide and representative in the business aspects of my writing career, and that involves (or should involve) more than just today’s contract for tomorrow’s book. I have this contract with Ellen because she knows the business, and that knowledge is vital in informing the decisions I’ll make about my future efforts. I take her advice seriously because it’s a large part of what I wanted an agent for in the first place.

I know some writers would balk at this. “I don’t want some agent telling me what to write,” one friend said to me when I mentioned this arrangement once. “They’ll always push you toward the commercial and away from the artistic and literary books of your heart.” First of all, Ellen doesn’t tell me what books to write, but she does advise directions and helps me choose the best next book from among the many I want to write. Secondly, that old wives’ (or perhaps more fittingly, old writers’) tale of the agent who forces their author to churn out commercial trash at the expense of her or his soul and reputation is now false, if it ever was true at all. Ellen has even been encouraging me to write a memoir and a literary novel lately. Not exactly the stereotype of the agent my friend and too many others have.

I think it’s important for writers who are still looking for an agent to educate themselves about what a good agent does for her/his client. That way, they’re not as likely to get suckered by one of the bad ones out there—and never forget to check them out with the Association of Authors Representatives and Writer Beware websites. A good agent may have to say things a writer doesn’t want to hear, such as “This book needs more revision,” or “That’s about as much of an advance as you can expect for this genre at your stage of career.” Hollywood and writer-myth have given us this notion that an agent can sell an otherwise unpublishable book and get huge advances for everyone, including rank beginners. Neither of these is true.

Our writing success is directly linked to three things—how good our writing is, how wise our decisions are, and luck. An agent can’t bring us luck or counter the effects of lazy writing, but s/he can help us to make much wiser decisions about the business and the path we choose to take in our career and help steer us away from major pitfalls. The key word in that sentence is “choose,” because the choices are still all the writer’s. The agent only advises. A bad agent is a disaster, but a good one can be a major partner in creating a successful writing career.

If you have an agent, how does your relationship play out? If you’re looking for an agent, what qualities and services are you seeking?


E. B. Davis said...

Because I don't have an agent, Linda, I have more questions for you than answers.
1. Do agents think winning contests is an indicator of a writer's prowess?
2. Are agents prejudice against older writers?
3. Why did you enter the St. Martin's contest rather than market your script to agents (or did you do both)?

Warren Bull said...

I don't have an agent. I would hope to find someone more in touch with the publishing world than I am, who knows about options and who can edit.

Linda Rodriguez said...

EB, I think winning a major contest can indicate to an agent that your work will appeal and be sell-able and will get him or her to look at it seriously, but most agents I've known will rely ultimately on their own reading of your work.

Good agents aren't prejudiced against anything but bad or lazy writers. I was over 60 when my agent signed me.

I had sent my manuscript to an editor I'd met at a writers workshop who had asked to see it. She liked it and so did her boss, but ultimately it was rejected. Editors seldom get the final word anymore on taking on a new author. Sales and marketing always weigh in on whether they think it's sell-able, and they can reject something an editor wants. That editor suggested I send the manuscript to the St. Martin's contest (that I didn't even know about), and the rest, for me, was history. If I hadn't done well in the contest, I'd have started trying to get an agent. BUT I'd already started writing another book in another series. I think too many times writers get fixated on one book. Keep writing them, and sooner or later one of them will get published--if you get good feedback and work hard at revision and improving your writing.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Warren, a lot of agents don't edit any longer. My own agent points out anything major she feels doesn't work--she's only had to do it once, but it was a great call--but she doesn't edit my work.

What I look to my agent for is her long, successful experience in the business. She knows what we can realistically get from a publisher and what we can't, where I should be focusing my efforts, what editor is looking for something just like this new thing I want to do, what contract clauses we need to change from what the publisher is trying to get, etc. I had signed one contract when we got together. St. Martin's has one of the fairer boilerplate contracts in the biz, but in negotiating the 2nd book contract, she worked to get back some important rights I'd signed away and did get that first contract changed retroactively.

I'd recommend you look for an agent as a business partner and find your editing through critique partners/groups or a freelance editor.

Gloria Alden said...

Good blog, Linda. I don't have an agent and won't start looking for one anymore because I've been satisfied with self-publishing and the lack of any deadlines except what is self-imposed. No matter what route an author goes, the book has to be the best it can possibly be.

Shari Randall said...

As usual, Linda, I have learned a lot from your post. I've just finished a novel and am putting together the required package of information (synopsis, query) to send to an agent. I hope I'll have the good fortune to find one that is as good for me as yours has been for you!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, you're happy with what you're doing with your books and finding readers, so I'd call that pretty successful.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Best of luck to you, Shari! I think it can be as hard to find a good agent as to find a good spouse, but it's worth all the work once you manage it. :-)

Jeri Westerson said...

It's a great post, Linda. Any agent not interested in career-building is a lousy agent. This is a business partnership and they should welcome your input as you should welcome theirs. That's why you are together in this arrangement.

After I was orphaned from my Big Six publisher, we sat down and discussed where to go from there. I don't plan on writing anything I don't want to write, and in this age of indie publishing there are more options for the published writer. But we both worked out what would be best to move into. I am writing in other genres but I don't plan to give up on my medieval mystery series either. If I have to self publish, my agent was behind that, even though he'd effectively be cut out of the process. But on the other hand, should a publisher pick it up, I'd welcome him back in. That's how we roll.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Jeri! You're right--you have a good agent. I've heard of other writers who've been dropped by their publishers (it's so damn common!) and their agents have also dropped them. Those were not good agents who believed in their writers and were in it for the long run.

My agent and I have discussed the self-publishing option also. We're not fools, and when we see excellent writers whose books are dropped, we know it could always happen to me. She also is fine with my going that route if it's necessary for one of my books or series some day and still repping me for new books and series. A good agent's aware of how flexible we need to be in this modern climate and willing to be just as flexible herself/himself.

Jim Jackson said...

Years ago I had an agent offer representation, and I ended up turning her down and never received another offer.

My decision was right and I would not go back and change it.

Since I am in the midst of writing a series, I've learned to give up on getting an agent until I choose to write something other than that series. Agents are not interested in picking up something in the middle of a series that is published through a small publisher (unless, of course, it became the next 50 Shades phenomenon).

When I was pitching I looked for a business partner who was interested in my career and could augment my skills with knowledge and expertise in the publishing business.

~ Jim

Linda Rodriguez said...

Jim, I suspect you did make the right decision. A bad agent, like a bad spouse, is worse than not having an agent or not being married. A good agent would indeed be, as you said, "a business partner who was interested in my career and could augment my skills with knowledge and expertise in the publishing business."

Sarah Henning said...

I loved this blog so much, Linda, because I can see my relationship with Super Agent Rachel mirrored in your relationship.

Also, I second what Linda says about the editing. Rachel and I talk about content for revision, not grammar and punctuation. And, really, most of our conversations are about my career as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great blog!

I think most of us would love to have a good agent. But that's a hard goal to achieve.

I'm glad you have one who can guide you and with whom you can discuss many things. I'm sure your successes are due in no small part to your agent's work (not to discount your hard work!)

Maureen Harrington said...

This is a great post, Linda. I value any advice and information about business matters. One day I may have the opportunity to use it. In the meantime I am happy to have it working in the background.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Sarah, yes--and writers looking for agents could read the blog you wrote on WWK a few weeks ago about the way you gained yours.

Linda Rodriguez said...

K.M., you're right. I'm a good writer, I think, and a hard worker, I know, but having excellent business advice and an experienced advocate in dealing with publishers is invaluable.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Reine. When I was an aspiring novelist, I was fortunate to hear from a number of published authors about some of the business side of things. It helped me when I got a contract from SMP. I knew about bad clauses to watch out for and was able to sign knowing that an agent could have done better for me (as mine later did) but that I wouldn't vastly regret anything in that contract. It helped me know what I should look for in an agent. Ellen was not the first I talked with--she was the one who met those criteria I had from more experienced writers and the one who meshed with me and what I wanted to do in the future.

So if I can pass on that kind of help in my turn, I'm glad to do it.

L.J. Kaufman said...

Your article is very insightful and caused me to re-think my marketing approach. Thank you for your experience.

Linda Rodriguez said...

LJ, best of luck in your marketing!